BISMARCK — North Dakotans will have greater remote access to the legislative process in the 2021 session as more technology has been implemented amid the COVID-19 pandemic

Because of the coronavirus, the state invested in technology to allow lawmakers and members of the public to view and take part in meetings remotely. The state began livestreaming committee meetings out of two committee rooms a few years ago as part of a pilot project, and now all committee rooms will have streaming capability.

The pandemic has brought a need for technology updates that give people options to stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Kyle Forster, information technology manager for the North Dakota Legislative Council.

"Everything is going to be brand new," he said. "So we're going to have a lot of people that'll be doing a process differently than they've ever done before."

The Legislature convenes on Tuesday, Jan. 5, for its regular session, and for the first time, lawmakers can vote remotely if they desire rather than being present during floor sessions, Forster said. Lawmakers can participate from their homes, or they can use the new designated office spaces within the state Capitol to participate in the meetings.

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In June, the Legislative Procedure and Arrangements Committee approved $1.25 million of the state's $1.25 billion in CARES Act funding for upgrading House and Senate voting tally boards to allow for remote access.

Forster said North Dakota is in line with other states in upgrading its technology, as the pandemic has prompted almost every state legislature to consider altering processes and adopting new technology.

Three additional rooms were created in the North Dakota State Capitol for committee meetings, as some of the previous spaces were so small that it would be difficult to maintain social distancing in them, Forster said.

Not only will the public be able to livestream all committee meetings, but people can also provide testimony and input on committee hearing bills remotely.

Before a committee meets, the public will have the opportunity to submit online testimony that the committee will take into consideration, Forster said. People can submit written testimony or documents, or they can testify through audio. Forster said each committee chairperson will decide how many people can testify.

The new remote access to meetings and the inner workings of how bills are passed will spur greater public participation, said Levi Andrist, a Bismarck attorney and president of the North Dakota Lobbyist Association.

"I think broadcasting live video streams of committee hearings is going to be a big step forward for participation in the legislative process," he said.

However, the new technology may present some challenges for members of the press, said Jack McDonald, an attorney for the North Dakota Newspaper Association.

It is common practice to approach representatives and senators after they have spoken on the floor, so the remote access may make it more difficult for journalists to seek comment or clarification from lawmakers.

"It's going to be a real different type of legislative session, that's for sure," McDonald said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com.